SAN FRANCISCO - We're waiting for our rental car at Avis. When the attendant pulls up, I wonder if there's been a misunderstanding. "It looks like an unmarked police car," I tell my husband. It's even dark blue.
"I asked for something larger than a compact because we're driving so far, and I thought we should be comfortable," he says. Minutes later, we pull away in our Mercury Grand Marquis looking for all the world like a couple of unlikely narcs.
Our final destination is Portland, Ore. (or PDX, as the locals call it, using airport shorthand). We'll stay there for a few days, and then drive back to San Francisco, all in one week. This trip is largely unplanned. We had round-trip airline tickets from Boston to San Francisco and at first we thought about taking day trips. One night I propose that we drive to Oregon, and just like that it's settled. The only reservations (we found everything online) are for inns on the route north; when it's time to turn around, we'll play it by ear.
As we sail over the Golden Gate Bridge, just ahead of rush-hour traffic, we peer down into the bay. The sun is bright; the spot is beautiful; and something about this big car makes us feel like it belongs to Daddy and we're on a joy ride.
We're on our way to Sonoma County, specifically Cloverdale, a town in the Alexander Valley, where we'll stay. Quickly we fall into our roles: My husband is at the wheel, and I'm madly studying maps and leafing through guidebooks to see what's ahead. He does his job well. Lacking a good sense of direction, I'm hopeless. "Let's have an early supper on Sonoma Plaza," I announce. The car makes a sharp turn east.
Sonoma is nothing like neighboring Napa. Where Napa has a Disney quality, Sonoma is refined and understated. That elegance is on display in chic and pricey housewares shops. The quaint 1835 plaza is eight acres; small adobe buildings around it were once food markets and dance halls. We find the Sign of the Bear, an outstanding cookware shop (you'll never see a place more crammed) and amuse ourselves. Then we slip into El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen - light, spare, and stunning - for a glass of local wine. The lively bar looks onto a stone courtyard, and we settle into a plush banquette. It's so comfortable that we ask for a dinner menu and don't bother moving. It feels romantic to squeeze plates onto the little bar table.
Cloverdale, it turns out, isn't around the corner. We get lost and nearly an hour later find Old Crocker Inn. Tony Babb shows us to our room. He and his wife, Marcia, and son Trevor run the place. The couple moved here from Menlo Park three years ago after Tony retired. A wide and inviting wraparound porch circles the inn.
Old Crocker sits on five acres. The property was originally much larger and housed a hunting lodge owned by Charles Crocker, one of the men who built the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s. Marcia Babb's breakfast includes homemade berry scones, fine creamy quiche, sausages, and fresh fruit salad garnished with edible violets. The round dining room is rimmed with windows and glass doors. We hate to move on.
But now we need to get to Interstate 5, which we'll follow all the way to Portland. Funny, the shortcut we take doesn't look mountainous on the map. We're very high, near snow-covered peaks, then down, down twisty roads, across the south rim of Clear Lake and east to I-5. We're a couple hours behind schedule, but then again, we have no place to be, except over the Oregon line to Grants Pass by nightfall.
At Shasta Lake, we pass a real estate office advertising, "Free list of foreclosures." We stop at a down-and-out IGA and buy fruit and yogurt for lunch, take off warm vests and sweaters, and eat leaning against the car in the sun. Mount Shasta, the highest peak in the California Cascades at 14,162 feet, looms in the distance above the evergreens.
The landscape in this northern stretch is so rocky and barren, so completely unenticing, you wonder why anyone ever settled here. Drivers seem to have a purpose: RVs, semis, pickups stuffed with gear or pulling a flatbed. Not many ordinary cars. Though ours is hardly ordinary.
Before we cross the state line, the mountains emerge again looking like marble in the distance. I-5 cuts right through the spectacular Siskiyou Mountains, at 4,310 feet, the highest point on the interstate.
We're desperate to stretch our legs and so we pull into charming Ashland, Ore., and Greenleaf Restaurant in an 1880 building. I dash to the ladies room. Two doors read "People" and "Other People." Imagine the hippest place you know. It's nothing compared to Ashland, which makes Harvard Square look like the Bush White House. Our server is so calm we wonder if he's just come from yoga class. We sip tea and look around like we're in some sort of museum. We're tired and sorry we're not spending the night here.
We have no idea how much sorrier we'll be.
Buckle up. The bluemobile starts climbing again to Grants Pass. We fly by the turnoff for Central Point, where Rogue Creamery makes famous blue-veined cheeses (a stop for the return trip). The Lodge at Riverside in Grants Pass, a makeover of an ordinary motel on the Rogue River, is a log cabin update. When you weave past the vending machines and concrete walkways to the rooms, the motel part comes shining through.
It's getting on 7 p.m. and the well-intentioned desk clerk doesn't warn us that everything in town is about to button up real tight. We roam aimlessly looking for dinner. Lights in all the downtown businesses are on; everything is shut. After an hour, we find G Street Bar & Grill. They're counting the day's take and turn us away, but one of the cooks takes pity and makes us burgers.
In the morning, we tank up at Dutch Bros. Coffee and rush away. By midday, we're in Eugene, home of the University of Oregon. Organic coffee kiosks line the route. One sign reads, "Oil change & espresso."
During lunch at Zenon Cafe, three men at the table beside us, in a business meeting, are dressed alike: jeans, navy blazers, white sneakers. Much of the menu is organic, there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan offerings, and dishes made with Tabil and other North African seasonings.
Moving north through the Willamette Valley, we notice grapevines planted on the hills. We'll drink valley wine when we reach Portland, which we do midafternoon. The Benson Hotel is a luxurious spot with a most welcoming staff. The doorman tells us we can get our car with 10 minutes' notice, but we have no intention of driving for a while. We even take several cabs to avoid it.
A chatty bellhop sends us for a walk around the corner to the Pearl District, Portland's renovated warehouse area. This is where the artists live, though there are plenty of Audi wagons among the rusting Volvos. The most famous shop is Powell's Books (my husband is champing at the bit), but several national chains - Design Within Reach, Lululemon Athletica, REI, Eddie Bauer, and Hanna Andersson - are behind beautiful old facades.
We stumble on Pearl Bakery and this place, we decide, would be a daily stop if we lived in Portland. And, oh, by the way, we'd live in the Pearl. Like dozens of people we meet during several days here, many of them visited, liked it enough to consider moving, and did.
We've never met nicer people anywhere. We walk miles, discovering neighborhoods, going to the East Side for dinner at the newly acclaimed Le Pigeon, where chef Gabriel Rucker, 27, is wowing customers in a small, unadorned spot; to Noble Rot, a wine bar with terrific French classics to nibble; and Rocket, where chef and owner Leather Storrs is growing micro greens on his roof to garnish outstanding food. In the Northwest section, we have an obligatory dinner at the PDX favorite, Paley's Place, and in spite of raves everywhere, we're underwhelmed by the service, the wine, and the food.
Before we pull out of Portland, we load up at Pearl Bakery. It's raining, and the young man at the counter offers to walk my husband's sandwiches and coffee to the car.
We make it to Rogue Creamery in Central Point by midday. It's fun in the tasting room, where you can sample award-winning artisan blues, all for sale, along with local wines. Heading south, the snow-capped beauty of Mount Shasta is more startling than on the way up. I'm reading aloud from the guidebook, and we're expecting a charming town ahead.
It's late afternoon. The town of Mount Shasta, 3,500 feet up in the mountains, has seen better days. Our "inn" is an old house with a realty office on the ground floor. No one greets us. It's all very strange. Even the room gives us the creeps. We jump back into the blue sedan to Dunsmuir, about 10 miles south, for an early dinner. Like Grants Pass earlier in the week, the town is shut tight. A pizza joint and Sengthong's Restaurant & Blue Sky Room are the only open spots. According to the menu, Sengthong's is Vietnamese-Laotian-Thai. A man with a blond pony tail behind the bar seems uninterested in having the quiet interrupted by guests. He turns out to be the husband of the woman cooking and with some prodding, tells us her specialties. We eat some of the best Asian food we've ever had, including homemade pot stickers.
At breakfast at the inn the next morning, a parrot sings "Hello," in the high-strung voice of an old lady. At least someone here is welcoming. The sun is shining and it's snowing and we see our first snowbow, a magical arch of colors that appears when the last flakes fall.
We're giddy by the time we hit Sonoma and El Dorado Hotel. The celebrated The Girl & the Fig is crowded and not that friendly. It reminds us of Paley's Place in Portland: adequate but not remarkable. Before heading out the next day, we walk around the plaza and lunch at the delightful Sunflower Caffé (a shopkeeper tells us the locals eat here). Sure enough, we run into Paula Wolfert, the much-admired cookbook author who now resides here. For an upcoming book, she's cooking in stone pots from cuisines around the world.
One last stretch of road, then back over the Golden Gate Bridge. We're not sorry to turn in the car. In a week we've logged 1,650 miles and seen everything we might have seen driving from Boston to Appalachia: exciting cities, and between them, forlorn towns with too many foreclosures; fancy hotels and otherwise; breathtaking scenic mountains and barren flatland; places with problems and places where money is no problem.
At the car rental, we fold maps and sweep out water bottles, napkins, warm hats, a few stray apples. "Next year, let's fly into Portland and drive to Vancouver," announces my husband. When I look at him to get a read on whether or not he's serious (he is), I answer, "Let's!"
Sheryl Julian can be reached at email@example.com.